Even in the most congenial cities, making your way to a Christmas concert can be an ordeal. With distracted shoppers, motorist gridlock, and people feeling neglected and lashing out at random, concerts have an extra medicinal responsibility to be all they can be.
The Philadelphia Orchestra's annual Messiah definitely qualified this year, so much so that it's a shame that Sunday's performance at the Kimmel Center wasn't repeated.
The Philadelphia Singers Chorale is guaranteed to deliver an exalted "Hallelujah Chorus," but one didn't anticipate associate conductor Cristian Macelaru being such a resourceful Handelian (now considered a specialty), creating a sense of live experience - as opposed to the another-day-another-Messiah that seasoned concertgoers know all too well.
Based on the Clifford Bartlett edition of this many-versioned piece, Macelaru made fairly interventionist decisions that musicologists could debate endlessly, but that resulted in a well-paced performance, even if not every moment made an optimum impression. Tempos, at times, were puzzlingly slow, especially in light of his decidedly non-contemplative Mozart Requiem broadcast last month with the Romanian National Radio Orchestra. Then you realized Macelaru was creating long-term emotional zones.
The aria "He Was Despised" more decisively picked up where "Behold the Lamb of God" left off, together creating the kind of searing introspection found in the greatest operas of a composer who had firsthand experience with the darkness of mental illness. Arias whose repetition can become tiresome were smartly ornamented to maintain narrative. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke had many adept moments with ornaments emphasizing the more solid areas of her full-bodied but flexible voice.
Soprano Yulia van Doren found surprising expressive potential in the sheer velocity of her often-intricate music. Tenor Nicholas Phan, who has a perfect midweight Handel voice, sang intensely emotional cadenzas with subtext that could come only from a fine art-song recitalist. Though he has a pleasing voice and can mold a recitative with the best of them, baritone Alexander Dobson went to eccentric interpretive extremes, as if applying method acting to Handel, his "Why Do the Nations Rage" being particularly Brando-esque.
Meanwhile, individual orchestra members came through with particularly strong obbligatos, including the newly arrived violinist Ying Fu and principal trumpeter David Bilger. Davyd Booth's discreetly improvisatory harpsichord had a duet with an audience cellphone at one point.
With its two-rehearsal assembly, the performance wasn't uniformly shipshape, with many of the choruses left to take care of themselves. The Philadelphia Singers can certainly do that, but often seemed to be lacking a solid sense of purpose.
But not always.
The final "Amen" was distinctively phrased with a smooth legato that in no way blunted the counterpoint, the sopranos making an unusually grand entrance near the end that, like so many strategic performance touches, brought the long musical structure to an appropriate peak.